In Japan, almost all elementary schools and junior high schools provide school lunches. It is usual for all students to eat lunch in their classrooms. The high quality of the lunches, and the idea of using them for education, are attracting attention from overseas. Multiple leading media outlets abroad have reported on them, and many videos introducing Japanese school lunches have been uploaded to SNS and video sharing sites. They have been watched many times and have gotten many comments.
Overseas, it is difficult to provide school lunches to all students due to issues with facilities, human resources, and ingredients. However, Japan has overcome such issues, and is able to provide safe and highly nutritious school lunches at a low cost.
According to a 2018 survey by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, 30,092 schools across Japan provide school lunches, with a provision rate of 95.2%. Also, 68.0% of evening high schools provide school meals, and in recent years, some full-time high schools have started to provide school lunches.
School lunch provision by school type
1) Features of Japanese school lunches
Japanese school lunches are not made from frozen ingredients. In many cases, they are made from scratch in the schools. The preparation work is streamlined, and hygiene and nutrition management is conducted in the cooking facility.
In Japan, basic nutritional guidelines related to school lunches are stipulated through the School Lunch Program Act, however, the regulations are minimal, and there are no accurate calorie guidelines. In many schools, a nutritionist creates the recipes, and sufficient consideration is given to the nutritional balance of the menus.
The low cost can also be said to be a main feature of Japanese school lunches. According to the 2018 Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology survey mentioned above, the average monthly school lunch fee paid by parents in public elementary schools and junior high schools is 4,343 yen for elementary schools, and 4,941 yen for junior high schools.
Providing highly nutritious meals at school at a low cost has a good influence on children’s health, and it is thought to be connected to the long-life expectancy and low obesity rates of the Japanese.
At lunchtime, students serve themselves, and clean up afterward to a certain extent, without a janitor. For people raised in Japan, this is a completely natural thing to do. It is attracting attention from overseas as an education method of encouraging student independence and developing autonomy and a sense of responsibility.
2) Japan’s highly rated Shokuiku dietary education
In many countries, school lunches are mainly regarded as an aspect of welfare. On the other hand, the largest feature of Japanese school lunches is their position as a part of education. In Japan, the idea of dietary education, which involves education through food, has spread.
In the Basic Act on Shokuiku (Food and Nutrition Education), which was established in 2005, dietary education is positioned as “the basis of a human life which is fundamental to intellectual education, moral education, and physical education”. Dietary education is an important element of childhood education from infancy.
Specifically, the following are stipulated:
- Shokuiku (food and nutrition education) must be provided with the principle that it contributes to the promotion of the citizens’ physical and mental health and the cultivation of humanity by helping them develop the ability to make appropriate decisions on their diet and keep healthy dietary habits throughout their lifetime. (Article 2)
- When promoting shokuiku (food and nutrition education), consideration must be given so that the citizens will be more grateful and more deeply understand that their diet is benefited from nature and supported by various activities that people involved in it engage in. (Article 3)
3) School lunch in the COVID-19 pandemic
The spread of COVID-19, which has continued since 2020, has had a large effect on school lunches.
To prevent the spread of infection, students must eat in silence. They cannot talk to their classmates while eating. Before the pandemic, it was normal for students to put their desks together and face each other while eating. Now, students leave their desks facing the front, as they are during lesson times, and eat quietly and alone.
The situation, in which the children are forced to do without the enjoyable lunchtime, and teachers are working hard on measures to prevent infection, and conduct dietary education, is continuing.
On the other hand, there is a movement to utilize eating in silence for dietary education.
Taking advantage of the fact that students are facing the front and eating in silence, videos are shown, and using a video conferencing system, students can watch the lunchroom, which they usually cannot enter, in real time. At a school in Chiba Prefecture, which neighbors Tokyo, they made a video which features the homeroom teachers, and reviewed ways to eat school lunches. The students also learned about manners when eating, and the production area of ingredients in school lunches, and local products.
Through such initiatives, it has been reported that the children have become interested in school lunches, and developed an attitude to face food. For homeroom teachers, it is an appealing way to educate children about food, and one in which they can see the growth in the minds of the children.